Tommy's PregnancyHub

Managing relationships after premature birth

Having a premature baby can have a huge impact on the whole family. Here we talk about how you may all feel and what you can do to support each other.

How premature birth may affect the parents

Research has found that both parents of premature babies are more likely to experience extreme stress and mental health problems than parents whose babies arrived full term. 

A lot of parents have told us that they felt a lot of complex emotions after their baby was born, such as helplessness, fear and confusion. Some even feel guilty or wonder if they could have done something to prevent it. Feelings of failure are also common. Some parents feel like their body has failed them or that they have failed at parenthood before they have even started.

Dads and partners may also feel helpless or out of control. Some partners have told us that they felt alienated in the baby unit.

Depending on how long the baby is in hospital, partners may need to go back to work before your baby goes home. This may mean that they can’t spend as much time with the baby as the other parent. This may leave them feeling isolated, scared or stressed that they can’t do more. 

This can create anxiety and tension. Even the healthiest relationships can strain in stressful situations, so try not to let any worries about you as a couple overwhelm you. It’s really important that you stay open and honest with each other about how you feel. Talking to each other about your fears, worries and feelings can help you to support each other better and understand each other. Try to understand things from each other’s point of view and give each other space. 

How premature birth can affect siblings

If you have any older children, they may be affected by the experience of having a new baby brother or sister who is born prematurely. Children are very sensitive to what is going on, and if you are concerned about the baby – even if you don’t talk openly about it – they will probably be aware of this. They are also likely to be confused if the baby needs to stay in hospital for a while.

The way they react will depend on how old they are and their personality. Try to explain what’s happening in a way you think they’ll understand. Try to be as honest with them as you can and be prepared for the possibility that they may have some questions. Let them know that they can talk to you about what’s happening whenever they need to. 

Try to involve them as much as you can. Perhaps they could draw a picture for the new baby or you could take them to buy a present for them. If it’s possible for them to visit their new sibling, explaining what the hospital environment may be like before you go may help.

There are books available that are aimed at siblings of premature babies to help them understand what’s happening. Ask your local bookseller or go online to find recommended books about prematurity for children.

How premature birth can affect grandparents

Grandparents may be feeling anxious for all of you. Try to keep them in the loop about what’s happening. 

They may be keen to help but unsure of what they could do. You could suggest they could do some practical things like make some frozen meals for you, help to keep your house tidy or look after any older children if you have them. 

Managing competing demands after premature birth

Your family and friends will hopefully become a vital support for you during the early weeks and months of your baby’s life.

But because everyone has different needs, having lots of people to worry about can make it stressful too. For example, you may feel that you need to spend all your time at the baby unit, but perhaps you have older children who need your time too. Or perhaps one parent wants to talk about a traumatic birth, but the other is not ready. Or maybe family and friends want to check in and see how you are, but you are feeling too tired or stressed to call or message anyone. 

This can be stressful. You will also be trying to cope with your own feelings so it can be difficult when you feel you need to look after other people too. 

If tensions are rising, try to talk things through. If you can be honest and open about how you’re feeling, it can often help prevent misunderstandings, hurt or resentment later.

How others can help

Family and friends may be an essential support at this difficult time, but not everyone is good at dealing with this sort of situation. You may be surprised by the people who rally round, and disappointed that others offer less support than you hoped for. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help or take it when it’s offered. They will probably be pleased to help by keeping you company, cooking meals or offering to help with your other children.

If people say unhelpful or insensitive things, try to ignore them. Most people will have no understanding of what you’re going through and would probably be horrified at their own insensitivity if they did.

“Ignoring unhelpful comments seems really simple to do but is incredibly hard. I think it is important for people to know that it is ok to distance yourself from people if you are finding they really don’t understand. People should accept it if you are asking for space. In time, you may find that some people will become more supportive as they understand more, or sometimes this may never happen.”

Aliyah

Celebrating your premature baby’s breakthroughs

Many families find that they are so busy focusing on their baby’s health problems that there is little space to think about the good things. It is important to allow yourself to feel grief when you’re going through hard times. But when your baby has a breakthrough, such as coming off a particular treatment, or going home, it can be helpful to celebrate that too.

Sharing good news

Many parents like to mark these events in some small way and to share them with others. This might simply involve sending out a group text to loved ones telling them the news, sharing a glass of bubbly or having a meal with close friends or family. You might prefer to simply note them down in a journal if you keep one.

Try to hold on to that positive feeling for as long as you can and focus on how far your new family has come already. 

Get professional support

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) provides information for people who are thinking about counselling. Their website also has a directory of qualified therapists.

Relate can offer you space for you to talk about your worries together in a safe and confidential place with a trained counsellor.

Ionio, Chiara et al. Mothers and Fathers in NICU: The Impact of Preterm Birth on Parental Distress. Europe's journal of psychology vol. 12,4 604-621. 18 Nov. 2016, doi:10.5964/ejop.v12i4.1093